Saturday, July 31, 2010


I've been up since a bit after five. Long enough to dash some cold water on my face, insert the new contacts, brew a cup of coffee, and without turning on any lights, lurch down the hall to my workroom where I managed a successful landing in my deskside chair without tripping over the dog or spilling my hot drink.
Not all my mornings start so well.
It is still dark out, though the first hint of light should come leaking over the eastern horizon within the next fifteen minutes. A half hour after that it will be light enough to begin seeing colors—the six to seven million photoreceptor "cones" in our retinas beginning to kick in—though still too dark to see a cardinal in the blackberry briars well enough to tell whether it's a male or female. For now, all I see beyond the window are a few lighter splashes in the cloying darkness, which I know to be the limestone slabs I've laid for a walkway.
But I can hear a robin swinging through his lilting welcome to the coming sun—a bright, cheerful melody that's filled with promise as it rings with joy. No wonder the darkness flees when it hears the robin!
In a few minutes I'll take Moon the dog out for her morning constitutional. While she's off doing her business, I'll check my river rock which sits round and solid in the riffle edge near the front of the cottage. I use this rock to judge the state of the river's depth and flow…at least until rising water covers it up, whereupon I rely on other natural gauges for my information. Not that I expect to see anything amiss this morning. It hasn't rained more than a sprinkle here for days.
No, the rock is more of a friendly oracle, a visual touchstone to the beginning of my day. I am a creature of habit and find comfort in certain small routines. Checking the river rock is simply a modest reassurance, like the robin's buoyant greeting and the sound of my beloved old dog snuffling about under the junipers. A positive note that at least for now, all is well…

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Katydid backlit by the morning sun. Note the shadowy body beneath the huge folded wings—much smaller than you might guess.
This fine looking green fellow was perched atop one of the tiki torches near the deck yesterday morning. Though it was only a few feet from where I sat sipping coffee, I first mistook it for a leaf fallen from the big box elder. That it wasn't the right size or shape, or even the right color green for a box elder leaf, did not penetrate my caffeine-starved brain for several embarrassingly long moments. But eventually, either logical awareness or chemical rejuvenation kicked in and the "leaf" resolved itself into a living creature.
Katydid! I muttered to myself, as smugly pleased as if the realization process had been instantaneous.
Frontlit, as viewed from the other side, you can now barely discern the small body hidden beneath the translucent green wings.
Actually, I'm not sure whether "katydid" is precisely correct or not, when it comes to what to call this insect. Katydids, crickets, shieldbacks, and anglewings are sort of one big vaguely obscure group to me. The general prototypes are easy enough—though I couldn't key even those down without a good reference guide. But when you get to some of the bugs on the fringes of the various genera, there seems to be overlap in what I'm looking at (Is it one of these, or one of those?) and at that point I'm totally lost.
I think this is one of the Round-Headed Katydids—possibly an Oblong-Winged Katydid, though it could alternately be a Clicker Round-Winged Katydid, a Rattler Round-Winged Katydid, a Common Virtuosos Katydid, or some other species member of the Round-Headed classification. I would have had a better shot at a firm I.D. if the katydid had favored me with a bit of song. Maybe—though I'm no better at differentiating the screechy sawing of katydid tunes than I am at distinguishing the insect on sight. Still, it would have been an important piece to solving the puzzle.
Now here's the kicker…providing my labeling of this insect as being a member of the Round-Headed Katydid clan is correct, that means, in the mystifying argot of the bug world, it's not a "true katydid" but a "false katydid," though still a katydid. And no, I can't make sense or explain this doublespeak either.
I could, however, take the katydid's (true, false, or undecided) portrait, thanks to my camera's auto-focus function—though I can't tell for sure if these images are crisp or not.
[For those of you wondering…yes, I'm still having vision problems with the progressive-focus contacts lenses. I was at the optometrist's much of the morning today, and have to go back for some additional measurements and tests tomorrow morning. New lenses will then be ordered from California, and I should have them by the first of the week for a new trial. In the meantime, I'm still struggling with the same reading, focusing, perspective and general vision issues that I whined about in my previous post. The saga continues…]

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I don't know what could be more important than good vision to a writer, reader, photographer, and rambling outdoorsman who takes great pleasure in those small vignettes nature provides in abundance for anyone willing to observe closely. Not the vision of a dream or trance experience, or vision in the sense of an ability to think and plan for the future. But vision as in sharp, clear eyesight.
For the past few days, I've had anything but good vision, and I can tell you my life has been (and still is!) a wreck.
It all began when I visited an optometrist to be fitted for new contact lenses. I've worn contacts since I was 17 years old—which is to say, decades. My eyes and vision needs are apparently perfect for contacts, with great tear production, ideal lid shape for quick centering, etc. I took to them like a duck to water. I've never experienced any discomfort, and in fact, can't tell you—other than by how well I see—whether they're in or out. I've worn them from waking to sleeping every day, whether it was the usual 17-hour day or a 40-hour stretch. I've swam, snorkled, rodeoed, rode motorcycles, fished, hunted, hiked, boated, camped, and traveled extensively, in every sort of environment and weather conditions imaginable…and never owned a back-up pair of glasses.
Though the lens materials have changed, these were all what's called "single vision" lenses, which means they were corrected to give at least 20-20 distance vision. Rigid plastic or "hard" type lenses; I've never worn the soft disposables.
Sometime in my forties I started having trouble reading fine print in phone books, on legal disclaimers, maps, and restaurant menus—especially in dim light. Naturally, I put off doing anything about this until my curiosity overcame my vanity. Finally, however, I succumbed to the inevitable, saw an eye doc, and was informed that like most other mortals of a certain age, I now needed reading glasses. Bummer.
I ordered a prescription pair of readers (at shocking expense!) from the optometrist, to wear over the contacts. Later on, I bought a second pair of cheapies from the drug store to keep in the glove box…then another inexpensive pair for the basement…and still another for my tackle bag. When Sam's began carrying 3-packs of readers—excellent quality, much better than any I'd found elsewhere, and for under $20—I littered the house, work areas, truck, and a dozen other places with spare pairs. The irony is that these 3-pack readers worked better than my snazzy expensive pair from the eye doc.
In practice, readers-over-contacts turned out to be only a minor inconvenience. For 95 percent of my daily needs, they still weren't necessary. Only for tiny objects or print under low light. I could still read a book by firelight without readers, for example, or tie on a size 16 trout fly to a 2-pound test tippet unless it was close to dusk. For writing, blogging, reading, seeing and taking photos, and most everything else, I never needed readers.
Then I went to the eye doc. I went only because the distance vision in my right eye was not as sharp as that in my left; I knew it was time for a power boost. Besides, the lenses I was wearing were five years old, and while I take very good care of them, I know that with time any lens can develop minute scratches, and at least need a careful polishing. The doctor I saw was insistent that I consider "progressive vision" contacts, which are just a sort of bifocal with the close-up part built into the outer area of the lens. "You can throw away those readers!" he said…again and again and again. "Why saddle yourself with old technology?"
What he didn't say was only about 40–50 percent of those who try them can be successfully fitted. They also cost considerably more—$724 dollars for fitting and lenses, versus $326 for new singe visions. I was perfectly happy to go the readers-over-lenses route, but eventually gave in to the sales pitch and ordered the progressives.
On Wednesday I picked them up. They were simply awful from the get-go. I knew it might take several trials and refittings to get these fancy lenses right—for example adjusted to normal pupil diameter, which, if set wrong, can cause you to see through both the close-up and distance portion of the lens at the same time, which is exactly what I'm doing. I now see three of everything, no matter what distance—and cannot see clearly at close, medium, or distant ranges. I was told this could clear up in time. I doubt it; it has now been four days and the vision is, if anything, worse. The only way I can write is to crank up the Mac's screen to 500 percent, making everything five times larger. I can still barely focus enough to read what I'm writing. Reading a book, watching TV, taking photos, etc. is out. My life is on hold until next Wednesday, when I go back in and have them evaluated and readjusted (of course I'll have to wait for the new lenses to be made and shipped); and I have no doubt they will require at least one more refitting after that.
Or I could just say forget it and order single vision lenses—which means I'll lose about $200. (I'd pay only for the fitting, not the lenses, which get returned.) Not a terribly expensive lesson, I suppose. In the meantime, I don't know how regular or irregular I'll be putting up posts. I may have to resort to the photos I've already taken accompanied by a longish caption.
Now I'm going to stumble out to the deck, stare at out-of-focus birds in out-of-focus trees on the other side of my out-of-focus river…and sulk mightily.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I don't know what it is about purple coneflower that bumblebees find so attractive—but I never find one without the other. Perhaps the bloom's nectar is especially tasty or intoxicating, or the pollen especially delectable. Even though there may be a half-dozen other flower species of similar height and size in full bloom nearby, the bumblebees seem most interested in snuffling over the flower's rounded centers.
Up close, they look for all the world like shaggy beasts grazing a reddish-orange field. Which is exactly the case.
Bumblebess forage to gather both nectar and pollen. In the photo above, you can see a only few grains of pollen clinging to this particular insect's rear legs; often the legs, sides, and underparts are practically covered with the stuff, as if they'd been heavily dusted with golden flour. Bumblebees use the gathered pollen to feed their larvae young—and of course they inadvertently pollinate various plants and flowers as they forage, making them one of the most useful garden helpers around.
Because of their large size and loud buzz, bumblebees tend to frighten some folks who don't understand their gentle nature. I suppose they do look a bit fearsome, unless, like me, you equate them more to woolly-haired sheepdogs.
However the truth is, a big ol' bumblebee hummin' and bumbling its way around your plants—even those plants inches away from where you stand or sit—poses no threat whatsoever if left to its business. Yes, they can sting, and more than once since their stinger lacks a barb. But they won't…not unless you threaten or try to harm it in some way. In point of fact, a bumblebee will pretty much do everything it can to avoid any sort of contact with a human, and any fear we have towards them is largely unfounded.
This morning, though the day is arriving heavily overcast and threatening rain, the bumblebees have already made their first visits to my small patch of purple coneflower. "Busy as a bee" applies to bumblebees as well as honeybees. They may be fat, but they're not lazy.

Monday, July 19, 2010


The sun was within minutes of slipping below the horizon, the last of its warm golden light washing horizontally across the tops of the coneflowers and big bluestem. Already I could feel the air temperature starting to cool. Wading through thick stands of tall vegetation under a hot July sun is sweaty, stifling work when the mercury tops the 90˚F mark and there's not a breath of breeze to be found. After an hour of poking about with my camera, I was grateful for the smallest measure of relief.
A Viceroy butterfly on the white bloom spike of a nearby Culver's root caught my eye.
Viceroys are those Monarch look-alikes. The two butterflies are dressed in almost identical markings of orange-and-black, with similar black wing edging patterned with white. The easiest way to tell the difference is by a black band which runs across the hind wings of the Viceroy, but is lacking in the Monarch. Also, Viceroys flutter while Monarchs, being larger and stronger, tend to flap and glide.
I know this and still occasionally get it momentarily wrong at first glance when I'm not really paying attention—once again reiterating to myself that looking and seeing are two entirely different things.
Incidentally, Culver's root, a native plant, was once used as a strong purgative—both as a laxative and an emetic. Indians used the plant to help cleanse the blood. Herbalists employed it to increase the flow of bile from the liver. I've read that in 1716, Puritan leader Cotton Mather requested that Culver's root be used as a treatment for his daughter's tuberculosis—which some historians think may actually have led to the little girl's death soon thereafter.
Nevertheless, Culver's root in bloom is a pretty plant…and prettier still with a Viceroy butterfly perched on its top.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


A sultry Sunday morning. Not as hot as it will be later in the day after the heat builds, but already warm enough to know it's coming. Also a possibility of scattered thunderstorms this afternoon which will only feel refreshing for a few minutes, but mostly add moisture to the already saturated air.
Yesterday, Myladylove (who has been on vacation all week) and I reworked the stones outlining the planting bed that runs alongside the cottage from the side deck to the rear corner—some thirty feet. These are big, heavy rocks, semi-boulders, several upwards of a hundred pounds, and all seemingly reluctant to be moved. Sweaty, brutish work that makes you appreciate the potential of a good mule. Mules being in rather short supply hereabouts, Myladylove and I substituted our weak and crumbling selves…and will no doubt feel the effects of our folly for days to come. We did, however, get the job done.
The day wasn't all sweaty labor, though. Two sugar-water hummingbird feeders hang only a few yards from where we worked, and the tiny ruby throats kept us constantly entertained—at times even zooming over for a close-up look at what was going on. Ruby-throats are extremely curious birds. They often hang in midair just beyond my workroom window and stare in, as if wondering what that fellow across the desk is doing. The little hummers are quite territorial, too, and don't play (or dine!) all that well with one another. There were constant chases, tail-flares, and high-speed aerial maneuverings and exchanges, all accompanied by a stream of excited mouse-like squeaking.
Nope, there's never a dull moment when the ruby-throats are around.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I am rich with nuthatches!
Flush! Loaded! Wealthy! A veritable nuthatch Midas!
While others may tout their net worth in terms of dollars in the bank, landholdings and real estate, or blue-chip investment portfolios, I measure my personal value by the things I treasure…and I absolutely delight in this summer's abundance of nuthatches.
An hour ago I was sitting on the deck sipping a banana-orange smoothie and idly watching the nearby river hurrying along. A series of thunderstorms passed through my corner of Buckeyeland night-before-last. It was cloudy all morning, remains overcast, and additional rain is expected this afternoon. The stream is up and slightly discolored. But at least we're now in the low-70s instead of the sweltering 90s, though the humidity remains high. Everywhere you look the vegetation is vibrant green and lush to the point of appearing jungly; I'm thinking of buying a machete for yard work.
A half-dozen feet from my rocking chair, hanging from a limb of the big box elder near the front door, is a wire feeder I try and keep filled with black oil sunflower seeds. I say try because—though the mesh cylinder holds more than a gallon of seeds at a time—the aforementioned bumper crop of nuthatches have apparently made it their collective life's work to empty said feeder at a pace that is nothing less than astonishing when you consider their one-seed-at-a-time handicap. Aided and abetted by chickadees, titmice, and the occasional goldfinch, cardinal, and downy woodpecker, the nuthatches lead the daily charge on the seeds, to the point where I swear I can watch the level in the feeder being reduced by the hour. I have to refill the cylinder every other morning.
That isn't a complaint, by the way. I'll happily haul in 50-pound bags of sunflower seeds for the pleasure of being entertained by the deckside antics of all those furred and feathered creatures who drop by to dine—from chipmunks to nuthatches. Especially nuthatches! Which are coming in droves this year.
How may nuthatches does it take to constitute a drove? Well, in my book, any number above, say, three on the same feeder at the same time is getting to be a bit on the crowded side; four on that feeder or a nearby limb is a bunch; five a throng; and six a multitude. I counted seven earlier today—either on the feeder or within a yard or two of it, on a branch or the box elder's trunk—which I claim can rightly be termed a drove. In fact, there might have been several additional birds clambering about, but as anyone who's ever tried counting these herky-jerky dynamos can attest, seven is about the maximum achievable count limit for anyone not wishing to risk onsetting a temporary case of Tourette's syndrome, or who failed to lace their smoothie with a heavy dose of vodka.
If you don't agree, next time you try counting 'em!
Anyway…I was sitting comfortably on my deck watching this veritable nuthatch horde busy itself depleting my stores of sunflower seeds, feeling much the same proprietary pleasure as a Texas cattle baron might feel kicked back on his ranch house veranda, while vast herds of longhorns grazed contentedly over acres of rolling grassland prairie. And as I watched those dapper nuthatches—in formal dress of black and gray and white—the nuthatches just as unabashedly watched me.
That's one of the reason's I like nuthatches—they're not afraid to make eye contact. In fact, they make a point of giving you a good honest and open look with their sharp black eyes before partaking of your handout. And they're not shy about coming close, either, or bothered in the least if you stare back. I like that in a bird; it shows integrity and trust. Nuthatches are birds of good character.
They're also real characters—stuttering along on the overhead branches, right-side-up, upside-down, ambling head-first down the trunk of the tree. Gravity doesn't have much say when it comes to nuthatch maneuverings. Plus they're noisy—keeping up a steady stream of low nasal yammering—sounds which always makes me amusedly wonder whether they're constantly suffering from head colds, or else might have somehow picked up a Brooklyn accent. The voice certainly fits the stocky little birds.
According to most of the literature regarding white-breasted nuthatches which I've read recently, my flock of nuthatches are unusually gregarious. Oh, they have their minor squabbles—but there's plenty to go around and room for all at the table. So no one goes away hungry and all are welcome.
As a nuthatch tycoon, it's the least I can do.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


This is a magical time of day…
The sun is almost down, as the last of it's golden light varnishes the tops of the sycamores along the river. The stream corridor, between the tree-lined banks, is in cool shadow and the water is the color of old jade.
I love this period, what the old folks used to call the gloaming…when the day softens and swallows dip over the pools as the last of the vultures come straggling home, sailing high and at ease in the blue sky, wheeling as they drop altitude, like black-robed skaters carving figure-8s in ice—swift and sure in their skill, and perfectly on target when they reach and glide into the dense green canopy to their roost. You never see them flare or flinch, or scarcely slow down once they enter the woods. Huge though they are, they fly with no uncertain grace, the winged masters of the cooling air.
As a photographer, I adore this gloaming light—warm, soft, and angled in from the side, giving a wonderful glow and dimensionality to whatever it touches…fence post, red-winged blackbird, a single umbel of Queen Anne's Lace. Light which paints everything with it magic.
The sweet light of the gloaming….

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Happy 4th of July!

Saturday, July 3, 2010


What could be more commonplace in an old field than teasel? It is so widespread, so ordinary, so expected that whenever we spend a hour exploring a wild meadow or fallow farm corner, we push it aside without giving this familiar plant a second glance.
Why? Are we just being blinded by impatience? Or is our overlooking a symptom of something deeper…perhaps a modern capacity to seek out and appreciate the beauty of a thing only if it is gaudy or rare?
How much joy do we miss by failing to recognize the wonder in the everyday?
A couple of evenings ago, as I ambled about a weedy prairie border, I stopped to admire the teasel head in the above photo. It wasn't showy in the least compared to a neighboring stand of purple coneflower, or the yellow rosinweed blooming beyond. Moreover, there were dozens of similar teasel heads poking up nearby. Yet something about this particular teasel caught my eye—perhaps the way the warm sidelight from the setting sun seemed to catch and tangle in the head's sharp prickles.
Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. And it could well be I'm more than a little strange to look at what so many view as a common noxious weed and see in it a moment of singular comeliness…though if this be the case, I hope you'll restrain yourself from trying to "set me straight."
No, I'd rather continue to regularly fool myself by finding the exquisite in the ordinary. Or to put it another way—uncommon beauty in the beautifully common.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


In the house where I grew up, Mom had thick stands of Wild Bergamot growing around the front porch. The plants did well, surrounding and hiding the wall of the 12x12 foot concrete platform—and at four feet tall, were level with the top. When her bergamot was in bloom, the view from the street gave the impression that anyone standing on the porch or sitting in the big metal glider beside the front door, was suspended on a lavender cloud.
Mom's bergamot was especially luxuriant on either side of the five steps leading up to the porch deck, a pale pinkish-mauve hedge whose branches and flowers draped over the end of the walk and the steps because she never trimmed their ends until long after the blooming period finished. The result of this studied shagginess was twofold—first in keeping with Mom's abundant-to-overflowing cottage-garden style, and second, in that day or night when her bergamot was in bloom, anyone ascending or descending the steps couldn't help but brush the plant tips with their legs…which in turn released the aromatic oils, instantly filling the air with a distinctive and delightful scent.
Often on a July morning, I would take my coffee and go sit on the steps between these clumps, groggily sipping the life-inducing brew while savoring the bergamot's minty-citrus fragrance. The air would be roaring with bees who appeared to adore bergamot nectar and would happily—and noisily!—snuffle their way through the cascading florets as if it were the most heady drink on the planet. Now and then a hummingbird would zoom in for a sunrise libation, though often first taking the time to zip over and hover a few inches off the end of my nose, giving me what was clearly an investigatory eye as if trying to decide whether this pitiful under-caffeinated lump was as harmless as he appeared.
Later on, when—thanks to my love affair with smallmouth bass—I began poking along certain stretches of the upper river on whose banks I now live, I came across patches of bergamot growing wild in the remaining bits and overlooked pieces of the old prairies which can still be found. A quick brush of my hand through the blooms released the familiar perfume. But it didn't quite look like the bergamot in Mom's yard, being a bit more purplish. After thumbing through my copy of Newcomb's, I discovered it was simply Purple Bergamot, which was a natural hybrid of wild bergamot and bee-balm.
These three members of the bergamot clan—Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, Purple Bergamot, Monarda media, and Bee Balm, Monarda didyma—are all native to Ohio. Bee Balm is the most showy, with its scarlet blooms. It's also the least common hereabouts, though is often grown in gardens. You may know this eye-catching plant as Oswego Tea, a name harkening back to the Oswego Indians who lived along the shores of Lake Ontario and brewed a strong drink from the plant's leaves.
Bergamot is a member of the mint family. The genus was named for Spanish botanist Nicholas Monades (1493-1588) who, in 1571, published a book containing the first picture of this New World plant.
Mom would always dry a gallon or two of bergamot leaves for tea making, spreading them on newspapers in the hot attic for a day or two before packing and sealing the dried leaves in Mason jars which she stored on a cupboard shelf. Bergamot tea is delicious—tasty with a bit of honey or sugar. A good drink on a winter's night or served iced with a slice of lemon at a summer picnic.
In addition to being used for tea, bergamot has a long herbal history, being employed for everything from headaches and sore throats to insect stings and bites. You can also use the leaves and tender plant tips to add to salads, make bergamot jelly, or spice up a pot roast.
Yesterday, I spent a number of hours poking through a prairie not far from here—a sunny expanse now spattered with a dozen or more various plants in full and lovely flower. Chief among these dazzling blooms were acres of Wild Bergamot, looking and smelling just like the bergamot Mom grew, though perhaps of a slightly lighter hue.
Memories flooded my thoughts as the wonderful scent filled my nostrils. The rich field was loud with bees, still as seemingly intoxicated by the plants as ever. Now and then the sweet poignancy of the place loosened some forgotten recollection, touched some hidden corner within which caused my eyes to fill with moisture…and for a minute or two afterwards, I simply joined those bees, bumbling through the bergamot.